Ramaphosa's big task: Name a lean Cabinet without worsening ANC divisions

The pressure is on President Cyril Ramaphosa to unveil a downsized Cabinet, possibly of around 30 ministries, to signal that government is serious about cutting spending, but without appearing to magnify divisions within the ANC.  

This is according to analysts who spoke to Fin24 about the party's win in Wednesday's general election. The ANC received 57.5% of the vote, down from 62.15% in 2014, giving it a clear majority of 230 out of 400 seats in the National Assembly. 

South Africa’s Cabinet is one of the largest in the world. It had 26 ministries in 1994 and has since ballooned to 34, with 37 deputy ministers.

"There are big tasks ahead for the president," said independent economist Thabi Leoka.

"Ramaphosa is tasked with turning around an economy that has been in deterioration, I’d say, for about 9 years," she said. "He is expected to do so in 18 months to 3 years and that is going to be very difficult".

Leoka said a reduced majority for the ruling party was a sign that voters were becoming impatient and "want to see reforms happening quickly".

"For the longest time we have been looking at the public sector wage bill and it has been increasing. One way to deal with that is to shrink the very bloated Cabinet."

The National Assembly will hold its first sitting on May 22, according to Parliament's latest schedule. After its 400 members have been sworn in and the Speaker and Deputy Speaker elected, the new President will be elected. 

Ever growing 

Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni of the University of South Africa said the size of SA's Cabinet has been growing since Nelson Mandela's government.

"We have seen the Cabinet expanding, not because it was meant to be more effective, [but] - in all probability with the help of hindsight - it was simply to accommodate political friends or for patronage. It has became a very costly exercise."

Ramaphosa’s first task, together with the ANC leadership, will be to streamline the Cabinet and cluster some of the departments, said Fikeni. 

"This will signal that the incoming administration is not going to be spend thrifty."

However, forming a lean and focused Cabinet would be a challenge. 

"Ramaphosa will have to carefully decide who will be left out and who will be included in a manner that doesn’t suggest that he is strengthening divisions within the party. At the same time, there is a cry that the average age of ministers - with some in their 60s, 70s - are way too old, and there needs to be more younger people and more women."

Stability and policy certainty

Fikeni said the country also suffered instability over the past decade because of former president Jacob Zuma's frequent Cabinet changes.

"One time he changed his Cabinet twice in one year and this is a recipe for instability, inconsistency and policy discontinuity. When ministers change some of the policies stop and aspects of implementation suffers so the business sector will be looking for certainty."

Isaah Mhlanga, executive chief economist at Alexander Forbes Investments, said it seems that a decision has already been made to cut the Cabinet size.

Before the final election results were announced, the ANC said it would give Ramaphosa its full backing to reduce the size of the Cabinet.

"It seems that we are going to get a Cabinet that has about 30 ministries and this is going to be quite positive in terms of fiscal costs. It will also be viewed in a good light by the markets and financial institutions."

The analysts concur that what remains to be seen now is which departments will be amalgamated, which ones will fall away and crucially who will be appointed to the new Cabinet.

* Update: This article was updated at 10:50 on May 13 to clarify that the SA Cabinet had 26 ministries in 1994. 

Find everything you need to know about the 2019 National and Provincial Government Elections at our News24 Elections site, including the latest news and detailed, interactive maps for how South Africa has voted over the past 3 elections. Make sure your News24 app is updated to access all our elections coverage in one place. 

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